Here’s a 94-second, 1300-year, kamikaze course in Jewish history from slavery in Egypt to the birth of Jesus:
1300 B.C.: 12 Hebrew clans escape slavery in Egypt after building pyramids for Pharaoh for 400 years.
1200 B.C. the 12 loosely confederated clans conquer the natives in Canaan.
1000 B.C. the charismatic shepherd boy David unites the 12 tribes and makes them a superpower in the ancient world, setting up his capital in Jerusalem.
900 B.C. When David’s son Solomon dies, the 12-tribe confederation bickers and divides into two kingdoms: 10 tribes in the north, usually called Israel, set up a capital in Samaria; 2 tribes in the South, usually called Judah, keep their capital in Jerusalem.
722 B.C. the northern 10 tribes, after suffering a monarchy even more inept than the House of Windsor, at least in its contemporary manifestation of philandering princes and unforgiving queens, were defeated by Assyria, the ancient world’s reigning superpower, and carted away to become slaves, busboys, and washerwomen in a foreign land. The few that remained in Canaan ceased being Jews in any real sense by intermarrying over the centuries with the impure Gentile hordes the Assyrians carted into Canaan to make sure they’d have no ethnic identity.
587 B.C. a similar fate befalls the 2 southern tribes, but somehow those Jews manage to stay Jews by honoring the ancient law, observing the old rituals, and refusing to intermarry with Gentiles. As you might imagine, the pure-bred, circumcised, kosher-keeping, Sabbath-observing, Jerusalem-Temple-visiting Jews of the south disdained the uncircumcised, unkosher, Sabbath-breaking half-Jews in the north. And this is the situation that prevails in Palestine through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Thank you for listening to that 1000-year history of the Jews. But it only took 94 seconds. Thank YOU, you’re probably wanting to say. Well, you’re most welcome.
Which brings me to our Scripture lesson for the morning. To get from Jerusalem, where Jesus is getting into hot water with the religious authorities, to the safer confines of his home territory in Galilee, Jesus must pass through Samaria, home for 700 years now to that uncircumcised, unkosher, Sabbath-breaking, half-Jewish remnant of the former 10 northern tribes. Many Jews walking from Jerusalem to Galilee refused to pass through Samaria, making wide detours around it to avoid the impure, half-Jewish locals who worshiped strange gods, visited unholy temples, and didn’t know the difference, most of them, between a menorah and a bar mitzvah.
One blunt Jewish observer called the Samaritans “those stupid people who live near Shechem.” But Jesus, of course, was famously indifferent about such ancient scruples, and he walks as the crow flies, the straightest distance between two points.
Shechem is about 32 miles from Jerusalem. It’d be like walking from here to Hyde Park instead of taking the train. You’d be tired and thirsty too. So Jesus sits down tired and thirsty next to a well. And it’s there that he meets one of those “stupid people who live near Shechem.”
She’s so stupid she can’t hang on to a husband. She’s sailed blithely through five marriages and then given up on the whole institution–well, you would too–and taken to living in sin with the guy she’s shacked up with now.
But Jesus seems not to care about this. They have one of the most involved and vivid conversations in any of the Gospels, and at the end, she runs off to tell her neighbors “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done,” which I’ve always thought of as a rather eccentric compliment.
How would you like to meet someone who knows everything you’ve ever done? Unaccountably, however, this disdained, half-breed, quintuply-divorced Samaritan becomes one of the first evangelists in the Gospels for Jesus’ extraordinary life. She ends up telling the Good News to scores of her neighbors, and Jesus hangs out with the Samaritans, of all people, for two more days.
6-5-4-3-2-1. My sermon title this morning is a mnemonic device so that you can take this story home with you and never forget it: 6 men, 5 marriages, fourth Gospel, 3 strikes, two ethnicities, one world.
Six men and five marriages. What’s going on here? Why couldn’t she keep a lifelong mate? Was she impossible to live with, an incurable scold? Did she live a sexually colorful existence of serial philandering? The temptation, of course, is to conjure a vivid tableau of her conjugal meanderings, to see her as the Elizabeth Taylor of the first century. But I doubt that that’s what’s going on in this passage. We’re not to see a licentious sinner here, but an abandoned victim. Divorce in the first century was not a mutual and negotiated separation between two individuals with equivalent legal rights.
In first-century Palestine, divorce, for the woman at least, was never a cause for celebration; next to death, it was the most tragic thing that could happen to a woman, because she was thrown into the street with no alimony, no child support, no equitable division of the household’s material assets, nothing.
In the first century the verb ‘divorce’ could never have a female nominative; the female was always the object, the female was always in the accusative case. That is to say, she was always the divorced and never the divorcer.
Did you see the article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times about Lonna Kin, from Monsey, New Jersey. She and her husband split up seven years ago and he moved to California, where he got a legal divorce. But Lonna and her husband are Orthodox Jews and he will not give her a divorce that is legal in the rabbinical courts. She needs him to give her what is called a ‘get’ before she can legitimately remarry, but he will not give her the required ‘get.’ He wants $500,000 and full custody of their 12-year-old son before he will give her the ‘get.’ Meanwhile, Mr. Kin remarried on Thursday in Las Vegas; under state law, you see, he is legally divorced. But under Jewish law, she is still forbidden to remarry; she is what is known in Orthodox Jewish circles as an agunah, which translates roughly as a ‘chained wife.”
The Samaritan woman’s circumstances are a little different; her ex-husbands obviously granted her a ‘get’ so that she could remarry–four more times. But you see my point: then and now, women can’t divorce men; it only works the other way round.
Have you ever been abandoned for someone younger, prettier, funnier, or richer than you? Well, of course you have; it’s happened to all of us at some point in life. After youth group in one of the churches where I worked a 13-year-old boy followed me to my office and just sort of started hanging out and playing with the knick-knacks on my coffee table. I could tell he wanted to tell me something but didn’t know how to broach the subject with his preacher. It was 9:00 in the evening and I wanted to go home to those who loved me so after about 20 minutes of this pointless chitchat I finally asked him what was on his mind, and he just broke down into sobs.
This is not something you see very often in 13-year-old boys, so I waited as patiently as I could while he unfolded the story about how he had this crush on a little classmate of his, so someone he thought was his friend let him listen in on a phone conversation with the intended. The little girl didn’t know he was part of this three-way call and started listing his deficiencies: he was scrawny, he was ugly, he was clumsy, he told stupid jokes, on and on it went.
I wanted to say, “Well, welcome to the world, little guy, welcome to the future.” But I didn’t. I happened to know that another little girl in the youth group thought he was the living end, so I let that casually slip. It was the most miraculous pastoral intervention I’ve ever engineered, the only time in my career where somebody left my office instantly cured.
The world not only rejects us but finds ways to let us know about it in vivid detail. And now what if it happens five or six times in a row? What happens to your self-image? Do you see why this is one of the most beloved stories in the whole Bible?
Six marriages, five men, fourth Gospel. This story comes to us from the Gospel of John, and that shouldn’t surprise us, because John is full of these intimate one-on-one interviews between Jesus and some broken soul. You remember last week’s sermon, right? Of course you do–Nicodemus. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus offers up his inimitable maxims to vast congregations, but in John there’s just Nicodemus and Jesus, just the lame man at the Pool of Bethzatha and Jesus, just the man born blind and Jesus, just Jesus and you. It’s why John’s is the most beloved Gospel.
There she stands with her six men and five marriages and infinite rejection, before this stranger, this Jew, who graces her with the benediction of his acceptance. Under his gaze, the pieces of her heart and soul are puzzled back together into some acceptable whole.
Six men, five marriages, fourth Gospel, three strikes. She’s a woman, strike one. She’s a Samaritan, strike two, she’s quintuply-divorced, strike three. Men weren’t supposed to talk with women in public, especially rabbis like Jesus. Jews weren’t supposed to talk to Samaritans. And no one would talk to a divorcee.
But with Jesus, it’s never three strikes and out. She gets another chance. With Jesus there is always another chance to get it right. It is never, ever over with him. He just won’t quit with us. Is there somebody here who needs to hear this glad good news?
Six men, five marriages, fourth Gospel, three strikes, two ethnicities. Part Jew and part God-knows-what-all, the Samaritans were what Draco Malfoy of Hogwarts would call Mud-Bloods. Samaritans were mongrels. They were hyphenated people, like Mexican-Americans or Asian-Americans or, African-Americans. Like Mayflower-Americans, sometimes, toward Italian-Americans, the Jews were openly contemptuous of Samaritans.
But not Jesus. Are you beginning to catch a theme here? Are you even getting bored with the obviousness of it? Good, it should be obvious and boring. Everything unacceptable about her he enfolds in his loving embrace. Is it too much to ask that we imitate him?
Six men, five marriages, fourth Gospel, three strikes, two ethnicities, one world. Jesus keeps telling us that these thin and shallow distinctions we keep making within the human family are just that–thin and shallow and meaningless. He works toward this one world, where distinctions like male and female, Jew and Samaritan, happily married and reluctantly divorced, just disappear into thin air. William Barclay says of this story, “Here is the beginning of the universality of the Gospel.” Yes?
I can’t help but point out that this well where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman is smack dab in the middle of Palestine where the ancient enmities between Samaritan and Jew have not disappeared but simply morphed into the present debacle. Would it be fair to call the Samaritan a Palestinian? Absolutely.
6-5-4-3-2-1. Well, enough with the countdown already. You get the point. “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done,” she proudly tells her neighbors. We want someone to know everything about us, and love us anyway, without condition.
Do you remember the song ‘Iris’ from 1998? ‘Iris’: the Goo Goo Dolls.
We don’t want the world to see us, ‘cause we don’t think that they’d understand. But when everything’s made to be broken, we just want someone to know who we are, and to love us anyway. Do you understand why they called him the Christ?
The Wisdom of Ben Sirach 50:25-26, from roughly 200 B.C.
Jennifer Medina, “Unwilling to Allow His Wife a Divorce, He Marries Another,” The New York Times, March 22, 2014.
William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series:The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 151.